Reflections from the Swamp
During March Break, I dropped in on a friend who used to teach with me in Carp. We shared a class of grade 5ers during my last year. I think she won the award for being the most meticulous teacher in the world that year, so it isn’t surprising that she founds me somewhat disorganized. Her two sons spent most of the break skiing at Mount Pakenham. A conversation about skiing led to memories of organizing a school trip to Mount Pakenham about 16 years ago.
Like all memories, stories combine imagination and reality, as literature often does. We all see events from our perspectives. The lines between truth and fiction are elastic at best. Regardless of some obvious distortions, this story is fundamentally true.
I imagine being dragged up on the witness stand, sworn in on the Bible and asked to truthfully recall the events of the Pakenham school trip. I would refuse to testify because I might incriminate myself. Now that I’ve retired and the school trip is safely behind us, and the statute of limitations is in effect, I can reflect on the events from afar and feel far less intimidated sitting on the witness stand. I was called Mr. Van during my teaching years.
Prosecutor. Mr. Van, Is it true that the school called on you to organize a school ski trip to Mt. Pakenham on Friday, Feb 23rd, 2007? Furthermore, what qualifications led to your selection as a trip coordinator?
Mr.Van, Thank you for the question your Lardship. Due to the complexity of managing ski events, no other teachers volunteered. The trip faced imminent cancellation. I looked up during the staff meeting and thought I saw the image of The Virgin Mary in the rust stains on an overhanging pipe painted white and knew Mary was calling me to save the ski trip.
Prosecutor. Do you consistently seek The Virgin Mary’s guidance when planning events?
Mr. Van. Not really. The ski trip was sort of a pilgrimage. Many students had never been skiing, so this trip was like a window into a new world. The speed of skiing is a metaphor for the fact that life is short, and we’re all going downhill in a hurry. Hopefully, we can learn to control ourselves so we don’t end up crashing on our way through life.
Prosecutor. You seem very philosophical in your outlook. Several teachers have stated, off the record, that you were the least likely teacher to plan a ski trip. Are you known for your organizational skills?
Mr. Van. Thank you for your question and for noticing my philosophical bias.
Let me answer by quoting Woody Allan. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach Shop.” I taught Shop for 13 years before coming to Carp. The board closed the shops and integrated us into the academic world. I was still learning to take attendance, teach lessons, and mark tests when I came to Carp. Sometimes I’d wander into a class and wonder if this was a class I was supposed to teach. None of the classes had woodworking equipment, so I brought my own.
Prosecutor. In your own words, briefly tell us what happened while planning the trip.
Mr. Van. Compared to any other trip, a ski trip has many variables. There was a separate price for the pass, equipment rentals, lessons, and helmets. Some students had their tickets and equipment, but the school wanted them to take a ski lesson anyway to ensure they had the skills to go on the more challenging hills. Some just needed a helmet or boots, while others wanted to take an older sister from another school because we had a reduced rate. Parents drove some to the ski hill, and some were going with friends who needed a separate permission form, while still others planned to meet us there but wouldn’t technically be a part of the group. In short, the organization’s requirement was a nightmare. A new computer program to collect all this data was woefully inadequate to account for all the variables.
Prosecutor. It sounds like a disaster in the making; what did you do?
Mr. Van. On the day of the trip, I threw all the money, forms, and permission slips into a large paper bag and loaded all the students’ skis into the back of my truck, Gloria. Gloria and I arrived ahead of the busses with all the skis. I entered the lodge to find the guy who processed the tickets and forms. A vision of The Virgin Mary as seen in the rusty pipes appeared and told me to confess everything to the ticket guy as if he were a priest.
I said, “Ticket guy forgive me. I haven’t been to confession for a long time. I screwed up the ticket information and threw everything into this bag.” Our school buses will be here in a few minutes, which could get messy. What can we do? I’m looking for a miracle here.
Prosecutor. I think you have condemned yourself adequately. I am curious to know what happened next.
Mr. Van. Thanks for taking an interest in my case. The older man, the ticket guy, processed all the kids, giving them tickets and documentation to get their ski rentals. When everyone was processed, he took the money and cheques in the bag, looked at me, and said,” Let’s call it a day.” Everyone had a great time skiing, and nobody died.
Later when the trip was over, I found another envelope of money, and a teacher appeared and apologized for forgetting to give me her class forms.
I ended up having a surplus of 500 dollars on the trip. All the anal teachers who administered the trips in the past were always $50.00 or so in the red.
The school was celebrating 40 years as Huntley Centennial School. I got permission to use “my” extra money to get a massive rock from Karson’s Pit near the Queensway. Karson gave me the stone for free because his wife had gone to Huntley. Karson had the rock delivered by a crane truck because it was too heavy for Gloria to move.
I found a gravestone engraver to come over and engrave the stone in front of the school. The stone’s words said,” Huntley Centennial” 1967-2007. A design of students holding hands was also engraved. Ultimately, we still had $200 left over for other school needs. I suggested we invest the surplus funds into beer, but that didn’t fly.
Sometimes all hell breaks loose, and everything goes wrong. How often have you found yourselves in a situation where a little forgiveness goes a long way?
I remember the old guy at Pakenham fondly. He made the world a better place.
I hope schools will continue planning ski trips. If you need some help, please don’t let me know.